How Volkswagen’s Diesel Dirtbomb Makes TDI Owners Look Like Fools

Filth, fury and a priceless fidelity challenged.

Volkswagen fans are a notoriously loyal bunch, their ears attuned to any slight, ever ready to defend their eccentric family-hauler or extol a GTI versus some jock-snapping Camaro. Drop a diesel engine into a Volkswagen—particularly a Volkswagen station wagon—and you’ve hit the car-nerd nexus of fanboys and car journalists, the fantasy equivalent of Zooey Deschanel as your date at Comic Con.

Now, with Volkswagen halting all sales of new and used TDI diesel models, following EPA allegations that nearly a half-million VW diesels cheated their way through its emissions exams, the hearts at this nexus are plunging faster than VW’s stock shares.

For V-Dub, which had done more than any automaker to (seemingly) clean up diesels and make them respectable in American company, the fallout from the growing scandal seems incalculable. First Toyota’s unintended acceleration crisis, then General Motors’ fatal ignition-switch glitches. Now it’s VW’s turn to jog a too-familiar public gauntlet: a media piling-on, including from blow-dried dipshits on the morning chats who wouldn’t know urea from a Kia. This will be followed by penitent executives flogged in the Senate, potentially billions in fines and perhaps even a fatal blow to Martin Winterkorn, the Volkwagen Group’s already-vulnerable CEO.

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But to lifelong VW lovers, the news (“Diesel weasels,” if the New York Post could use a screaming headline) comes as a gut punch. It’s like discovering that your childhood sports idol was a steroid-shooting liar all along. Only in this case, VW seems to have screwed up by not juicing—that is, by trumpeting their four-cylinder turbodiesel as clean enough to not require a secondary tank of urea fluid to scrub the sooty exhaust stream. As we’ve now learned, the company illegally coded a “defeat device,” a software Trojan Horse to evade detection of off-the-charts pollution levels its cars were actually emitting. Ausgezeichnet, indeed.

Like Lance Armstrong’s acolytes, VW fans are being forced to face the truth, to defend the indefensible.

To this former owner of GTIs, a Corrado and a Passat, the news is hurtful enough. More personally, I’ve talked three people into the driver’s seats of VW diesels of late, including my good friend Emmitt George and his wife, Margaret. They were minutes from buying a Subaru Forester when I urged them to test a Jetta TDI wagon. They called me excitedly from the dealership, and bought it on the spot. Emmitt’s brother-in-law then picked up a Passat TDI. I just got off the phone with Emmitt, a New York actor who, in a familiar VW rite, still loves his car despite having his loyalty sorely tested.

“It’s been great,” he said. “I get 48 mpg on the highway. I fill up for $30 and drive for four weeks. Diesel in New Jersey is cheaper than regular right now. It’s crazy.”

But oh, does Emmitt have questions, the very ones that must be crashing every VW server from here to Wolfsburg. I quote:

What if my car won’t pass an emissions test, am I totally screwed?

Are they going to have to give me a regular gasoline car?

What are they going to do with all the cars on the lots?

(And, most painfully to an auto journalist who had long since perfected his pitch on the wonders of diesel technology...)  

So it’s not clean diesel, and that was all a marketing lie?

Car writers obsess over dashboard fitment and leather stitching patterns. It’s the messier part we tend to forget: real people buying real cars, making real payments, wondering if they made the right decision. Or the wrong one.

For VW, let the speculation on Who-Knew-What-When begin, though it ultimately won’t matter whether grunt-level engineers were simply covering their asses, or whether a smoking gun traces a bullet to the boardroom. Top executives will be judged as complicit and implicated, or oblivious and incompetent. Either way, the company will pay the price.

Defensive VW fans will surely note that, unlike with GM’s woebegone Cobalts and Saturns, no one is known to have died as a result of VW’s dirty dealing. And though Emmitt’s car, and roughly 481,999 others like it, may be spewing 40 times the legal levels of pollutants, a half-million TDIs among 256 million vehicles on American roads have a negligible effect on the environment.

But forget any green-washing excuses. Like Lance Armstrong’s acolytes, VW fans are being forced to face the truth, to defend the indefensible. For months if not years, we’ll wearily answer familiar-yet-fair questions from people who assume that Volkswagens can’t be trusted, or that “clean diesel” is a sham and a dead end—a corporate euphemism on par with “clean coal.”  

It all feels like a betrayal. Caught red-handed, and for what? For cheating on a test. It’s the kind of dumb-jock move that will make car nerds wonder what kind of team they’ve been rooting for.